Wednesday 27 February 2013

Durs Grünbein and The Vocation of Poetry – Part II

This post follows on from the last but one.  There was too much of Grünbein’s 60-page booklet to cover in a single piece.  The Vocation of Poetry is published by Upper West Side Philosophers, in a translation by Michael Eskin: I’m putting that information here, at the beginning, as I want to give Grünbein the last word.  See the final sentence for why. 

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Also, it’s worth saying something I didn’t know when I wrote the earlier piece. Having lost my Faber copy of Grünbein’s selected poems in English, Ashes for Breakfast, and finding it hard to replace, I ordered the US edition instead (publ Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, available from Foyles). I was delighted to find that this contains a parallel German/English text.  Unlike the Faber edition, which is staidly, meanly monoglot.  For anyone who reads even a little German, having access to the original poems is hugely preferable – especially as there is no equivalent German-only Selected containing the same poems. 

Now, over to Grünbein.  He moves, in his essay ‘Outline of a personal psycho-poetics’, from the gutter:

Language is one of the few non-exclusive artistic media…  The poet looking for raw material has to make do with a waste product that only few pay any particular attention to at all: no sooner used than already discarded…

to the stars –

What counts is the one, unattended second, the moment of inspiration that can never be forced and decides all.  It gives the beginning, it sets in motion the production of sense.  The poem is the literary form that most purely captures this moment of inception.  I might even go so far as to say that poetry is in large part born from the desire to start over as often as possible. 

That second passage seems to me about as perfect a statement on poetry as is possible. And the last sentence gave me a pleasurable shock of recognition.  It doesn’t necessarily only apply to poetry, of course – re-reading it, I think of walking along gallery walls, looking at one Howard Hodgkin painting after another, one after another starting-over.  If the impact of certain painters could be considered more akin than others to the impact of poetry, then Hodgkin would be one, for me.  Maybe it’s the semi-abstract nature of his paintings. Here’s the end of a poem of Grünbein’s, 'Monological Poem #2', translated by Micheal Hoffman, from Grauzone Morgens (1988):

  Gedichte                                  Poems

aufgeschrieben in diesen              written at those
seltsamen Augenblicken da          odd times when

irgendetwas noch Ungewisses      something still inchoate
ein Tagtraum eine einzelne          a daydream a single

Zeile von neuem anfängt und       line begins somewhere and

dich verführt.                              undoes you.

Grünbein also discusses in that same essay the effect on his poetic development of the end of the Warsaw Pact and German reunification: 

A sense of dislocation, of slipping into an unknown, ‘enormous room’… [a] new phenomenon: the unbounded, permeable ‘I’… I felt as though I had crawled out from under the debris of a mass collision of historical proportions, slightly scraped, yet a new man.

He claims that he found his voice then.  Having read a few of his earlier poems, I’m not convinced… maybe it just got stronger, and took on a great breadth of subject matter. 

...but not this one.
The title of the fourth essay, ‘On the Place Value of Words’, refers to the need for each word to find its proper place in a poetic line.  “Poets are people who have internalised the emergence of words at the right moment as the key task of their art.”  There are entertaining and acute paragraph-length pieces on different aspects of the art of poetry. The essay is full of aphorisms.  These range from the gnomic, “The future of poetry lies in the sentence”, to the more straightforward, “You don’t look for rhyme, you find it”. 

The final essay, ‘Parenthesis for Optimists’, contains a rousing defence of poetry in modern times - it could be prescribed reading for any disheartened writer of poetry, which must surely be all of them, at least sometimes. 

To those who take it seriously, who live by it, [poetry] is a method, a guide to thinking and feeling with precision.  It deals with the foundations of the imagination without which there would be no science… It can only maintain its integrity if it makes as few concessions to the communicative use of language as possible.  Its goal is to put language into a dream state.

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